Few options for bars like Steel Barrel Taproom during shutdown as state says they can't sell to-go

click to enlarge Few options for bars like Steel Barrel Taproom during shutdown as state says they can't sell to-go (2)
Samantha Wohlfeil photo
Bars like Steel Barrel, which aren't allowed by Washington state to sell alcohol outside the walls of their establishment, were left in immediate limbo this week with the closure of restaurants and bars except for to-go orders. They wonder if like other states and cities around the country, there might be some leniency afforded during this time to sell alcohol to go to stay out of debt.
Many bars and restaurants in Spokane and surrounding areas have started offering expanded to-go options from their food menus and growlers of beer to-go following Gov. Jay Inslee's order to close all in-person dining and drinking this week.

But for places like Steel Barrel Taproom - which serves beer, wine and liquor, and due to its hours, has a slightly different license from the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) - the closure of in-person dining and drinking this week has meant completely shutting down.

While the employees and owners understand the usual LCB rules, it would be great to have the option to sell beer, wine, and liquor to go, says Steel Barrel bar manager Ben Walker.

"Our licensing prevents us from selling anything outside our walls," Walker says. "A lot of breweries started selling crowlers and growlers, which is fine for them because they have different licensing, depending on how they operate. But we basically couldn't sell anything, so we went from all to basically nothing in a day."

That didn't really allow the bar any time to prepare for other options, he says.

Like many bars, Steel Barrel also had plenty of stock on hand, including fruits, fresh squeezed juices, and more that had to be tossed.

The bar's owners reached out to LCB to check if there was any leniency, but currently they are still not allowed to sell alcohol outside the establishment. Other places like New York City and Texas have started allowing their bars to sell liquor to go during their own similar shutdowns of public places, but Washington has not.

"I don't want to put LCB in a bad light," Walker says. "I think their hands are tied on certain things."

Indeed, LCB cannot supersede state law, explains spokesman Brian Smith. Some restaurants and bars may apply for expanded services they've never used before, such as selling a bottle of wine to-go with a meal, or being able to take a growler out to the curbside instead of needing to sell that at the counter inside, Smith says. But state law does not allow for spirits to be sold to-go except from normal grocery stores and liquor stores.

"If the law does not allow them to do it, we do not have the ability to do that unless the Legislature comes into session and changes it," Smith says.

The changes that are allowed, such as a restaurant applying to sell wine to go, require local governments to get a notification and up to 20 days to comment on the change, but LCB has asked cities to waive that privilege, Smith says. Some have agreed, while others like Seattle have opted to maintain the ability to weigh in on each and every case.

Still, it would be helpful if the government would temporarily allow outside sales that would maintain the same responsibilities for age restrictions, Walker says.

"It would be very, very helpful because there are businesses that are kind of in the cracks there, and we're one of those that are getting a little bit lost," Walker says. "Just some flexibility so we're able to not go into huge amounts of debt from this whole thing."

Timing is pretty key, too, he says, as people are currently putting out a big push to buy take-out and support local businesses. But that could change if closures continue for weeks and people start tightening their budgets.

One thing that LCB has allowed is for bars that had already stocked up on beer for the now-canceled NCAA tournament and St. Patrick's Day to try and sell some of their stock back to their distributors, who may be able to deliver it to states that don't have such tight restrictions yet, Smith says.

While the changes in Washington resulted in nearly instant unemployment, Walker says he and the owners of Steel Barrel support taking precautions to make sure that the spread of COVID-19 gets under control. They also understand many bars and restaurants are trying to balance staying open with safety for themselves and others.

"We're on the side that we want to contain this thing too, we want it to be over with," Walker says. "I think everyone's kind of a little bit like, 'Do we try to stay afloat?' Or where's the balance there? Do we put more effort into staying afloat and finding ways to sell things? How do we do that while maintaining safety?"

Steel Barrel is working on offering gift card sales online, so keep an eye on their social media pages for an update, and in the meantime, shoot them a message if you want to work out a way to come pick one up. 

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Wed., March 29, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...